Would You Believe Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and Bruce Springsteen? 10 20th-Century Progressives the Nation Left Off Its List
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
You can't blame the Nation too much for publishing a list of the 50 most influential progressive figures of the 20th century that includes a fair share of truly historical figures, some of whom are barely remember-able. After all, the magazine is more than 140 years old. They have a lot of perspective. And it is rather noble of them to be so evenhanded, or perhaps a little shortsighted, when it comes to the late 20th century, where there are flesh-and-blood heroes still making a fuss, who very well should be on that list.
I tip my hat to Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College, whose project it was to pick the 50. Along with the great pillars and heroes of the past 100 years, the household names, he also aimed a spotlight on figures from the first half of the century that people under 60 years old may have a hard time remembering -- historical players like Lincoln Stefffens, Florence Kelly, A.J. Muste, Henry Hay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Roger Baldwin (not James). Or you might scratch your head about a few who just don't belong on the list at all, like Bayard Rustin, who not only supported the Vietnam war, but was an apologist for some of the worst minority community bashing by the odious Albert Shanker, longtime head of the New York City Teachers Union.
But before old lefties get too hot and bothered, I know all of these choices have their rationale. All in all, a good deal of the 50 are very obvious, like Cesar Chavez, the list's only Latino, and Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr., two of the 10 African Americans, if my count is accurate. There are two second-wave feminist heroes in Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, union heavies like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, and on and on -- check it out and be forewarned. (TheNation loves its beautiful slide show of each of its heroes, so much that I was unable to find an actual list. Maybe it exists and someone can tell me how to find it.)
Of course, by the very nature of attempting such a task, Dreier was asking for trouble or perhaps controversy, which is all in good spirit. Imagine picking 50 progressives over 100 years. That's one every two years.That's leaving a lot of people out. And the frustration I feel is that since I lived only for the second half of the century, many of those left out are people we have known and admired, who have been important to our lives.
As the list is constructed, almost everyone on the list is dead or quite old -- only about 10 of the 50 are still alive. So my biggest complaint is that baby boomers -- those who were born roughly 1946-1964 -- get short shrift. Michael Moore, at 56, is the only boomer and by far the youngest person picked. One gets the impression that the boomer are represented by some of the heroes of boomers -- but notice that this collection of boomer icons are from the "silent," generation and very much pre-boomer: Harvey Milk ('30), Barbara Ehrenreich ('41), Gloria Steinem ('34), Billie Jean King ('43), Jesse Jackson ('41), Ralph Nader ('34), Bill Moyers, ('34).
So to spark more debate, and to add a few twists, here are 10 influential progressives who IMHO should be on the Nation's list:
1. Amy Goodman-- A boomer, simply the most popular, most dedicated, hardest-working progressive in America, who unlike other super-popular progressives like Moore and Moyers, makes use of almost totally independent media via her daily radio/TV show to reach her large and admiring audience. The epitome of the long-distance runner, Amy has been fighting for truth and justice for the past 40 years, domestically and around the globe, draws large crowds whenever she speaks, and has an incredibly loyal audience. The Rainforest Action Network just honored her for her contributions to the environmental movement as well.
2. Bruce Springsteen-- Boomer # 2. Nothing against wonderful folk singers Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger, but come on. Culture plays a huge role in influence, and the Boss has been a consistently powerful troubadour for working-class issues and progressive values, playing concerts to stop nukes, and for Amnesty International, to get liberals elected, etc. "Born to Run" sent him off to superstardom in 1975 and he has played to many millions of loyal fans, consistent in his support for a human politics and the working man. He has won 20 Grammys, an Academy Award, and his album Born In the USA was an anthem of pride for many boomers. Later in his career he made a stirring album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, to honor immigrants and those left out of American society.
3. Bob Dylan -- While we are on culture, how could Bob Dylan be left out? His prodigious output, powerful and influential lyrics over 50 years, make him the most influential American musician, probably ever. Just two songs: "Blowing in the Wind" and "The Times They are a Changin'" had huge influence on civil rights and the anti-war movement, and there are dozens of classic Dylan songs. While Dylan is not a boomer ('41), his shift to electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 made a huge fuss, and changed the nature of folk music.
4. Noam Chomsky -- America's most popular and well-known intellectual. A towering figure, the author of dozens of books, revered by young and old. It must have been an oversight on the part of the Nation, because C. Wright Mills is on their list, and he doesn't possibly meet Chomsky's contribution.
5. Jane Fonda -- Fonda is a two-time Academy Award winner with a number of memorable roles especially in Coming Home, the story of a disabled Vietnam veteran and his difficulty reintegrating into society. Her deep engagement in the anti-war movement, particularly supporting anti-war soldiers, and her strong commitment to feminism, leading her to co-found the Women's Media Center, combined with her artistic success, means there is simply no one quite like her in the 20th century, (although Susan Sarandon does come close). She deserves to stand next to Friedan and Steinem as the top women of the second half of the 20th century.
6. Abbie Hoffman -- Hoffman is probably the most brilliant communicator of radical ideas and political issues progressives have ever had. The founder of the Yippies, the most visible of the Chicago 7 after the Democratic Convention in 1968, he was a larger-than-life figure, whose creativity -- like publishing the infamous Steal This Book -- made him a compelling force for decades, even while he was underground.
7. Howard Zinn -- The People's History of the United States is possibly the most popular progressive work in history, read by millions of students, who were provided with a true alternative to the lies and distortions of "establishment history." Like Chomsky, Zinn, who died recently, has no peers, and is a must for any list of influential progressives of any century.
8. Daniel Ellsberg -- The name of the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, says it all. Besides his decades of relentless critique of the military dominance of American society and government policy, his effort to expose the Pentagon Papers still stands as one of the century's most important individual efforts to speak truth to power.
9. Cornell West -- Born in 1953, West brought a new, energized model to the role of black leader. Philosopher, preacher, author and civil rights activist, plus a maker of rap, he weaves together the issues of race, class and gender like no other American critic. As a Princeton professor, he is one of a handful of prominent black intellectuals who provide the spark for the post-civil rights black leadership in America.
10. Molly Ivins -- Considered a national treasure by many, Ivins was both the funniest, and hardest hitting journalist of the past 40 years. She skewered the enemies of the people with vigor and elan, making remarkable contributions in her speeches, columns and books. She was mostly a thorn in the side of evil Texans, but her reputation is world-wide. She died in January 2007.